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June 4, 2019

Andy Shepard, founder of Outdoor Sport Institute, stepping down

File / Tim Greenway Andy Shepard, recently retired general manager of Saddleback, is overseeing the completion of the resort's Mid-Mountain Lodge.

Andy Shepard, founder of the Outdoor Sport Institute in Caribou, plans to step down as president and CEO on July 1, after 20 years at the helm.

“I left L.L. Bean 20 years ago, a culture that expected its employees to give back meaningfully to their community,” Shepard said in a June 3 news release

“My goal was making a difference in Maine, and I’m proud of what’s been accomplished in those 20 years, but I also know there is still a lot of work to be done in our state. I hope to find a way to keep that my focus.”

Mike Smith, who has been with the organization since 2009 and is currently acting as the COO, will step into the role of executive director.

Shepard was honored by Mainebiz as its 2011 nonprofit business leader of the year.

Less screen, more outdoors

The institute was founded in 1999 as the Maine Winter Sports Center. It changed its name to Outdoor Sport Institute in 2016.

It grew out of a recognition that communities in Maine and across the country were struggling with similar challenges when trying to create sustainable, active outdoor opportunities for people of all ages. 

Programs include things like “Team OSI” and a community coach network, both designed to support and build outdoor sport opportunities.

“My goal was to try and create a sustainable model for rural communities in Maine,” Shepard told Mainebz. The focus was on economic development, health and wellness, networking and volunteer development, as a way to solve some of the bigger challenges in rural communities, he said.

During its first 15 years, the organization built two world-class biathlon and cross-country skiing facilities in Aroostook County. Those were the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent, which is now called the Fort Kent Outdoor Center; and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle.

It also redeveloped two alpine ski areas: Bigrock in Mars Hill and Black Mountain in Rumford. And it had  a development program for aspiring Olympic athletes.

All together, the organization trained 15 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and achieved $100 million in economic impact, he said. The ski sites have spurred private investment in hotels, restaurants, and shops.

The venues are now independently owned and operated.

Outdoor lifestyle

The center also had a community development program, designed to engage children age 6 and up in a healthy outdoor lifestyle.  The organization partnered with 40 organizations in 140 communities throughout Maine to get kids and adults active outdoors, through skiing, biathlon, hiking, climbing, paddling, running and other sports. Its work includes everything from developing trails to training coaches and providing communities with use of skis and kayaks.

Five years ago, the organization lost backing from its primary funding source, Libra Foundation.

“We had eight weeks to raise $1 million,” he said. “So we spent  the last five years refocusing our mission, to try to stabilize the organization."  

As part of that, in 2017, the organization began working with the University of Southern Maine’s Data Innovation Project to develop a model that would address the root causes of these challenges. The work with the Data Innovation Project was led by Smith.

“This is an extraordinary group of very bright and talented people who helped us figure out what it would take to connect kids with the outdoors,” Shepard said. “Not what sounds good in a presentation, but what it’s really going to take to peel back the layers of culture that prioritize time in front of a screen over time spent outdoors.”

The result is a focus on a community-wide, collective effort, ensuring the outdoors and outdoor sport opportunities are woven into the fabric of a community. This model, launched in June 2018 in Millinocket and in Skowhegan this spring, prioritizes working with community partners to develop infrastructure, programming and resources that make active, outdoor opportunities accessible for everyone in the community. 

The model also prioritizes building capacity of local teens and adults as advocates, mentors and leaders in outdoor sports. 

For example, “One of the biggest challenges communities face is access to gear,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a trail system. But in a lot of rural communities, if there’s no access to gear, it all stops there.”

In this instance, he said, Matt DeLaney, director of the Millinocket Memorial Library, has been working with the institute to devoep a gear library. 

“He’s redefining the role of a library in a rural community,” Shepard said. “Now, if you go the library, you can check out mountain bike or white water kayaks or, in the winter, cross-country skis. We think this could easily be part of the model that could be a breakthrough for the rest of Maine and the rest of the country.”

Get people on skis

Shepard spent 16 years at L.L. Bean in Freeport, working on strategies, products and services to inspire people to spend time outdoors, according to his bio.

While at L.L. Bean, he developed a strategy to create a new economic and cultural model for Northern Maine, which became the Maine Winter Sports Center in the spring of 1999. The center evolved into a year-round, statewide organization that used the outdoors and outdoor sport to prepare children and adults for the challenges in life The focus started with  using winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing and biathlon competitions, to boost Aroostook County’s economy. 

The name change, in 2016, reflected an expanded mission to operate in all seasons and in all 16 Maine counties and beyond, and to expand the focus to additional outdoor sport education programs such as trail running and canoeing, Shepard told Mainebiz at the time.

With the organization positioned to pursue this new focus, Shepard said he’s now looking to broaden the scope of his work again.

“When I left L.L. Bean, with the idea of, What’s it going to take to answer the challenge in rural communities, I was looking at it in the most comprehensive way possible,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for me, now, to refocus my attention on that more comprehensive approach. Over the last four or five years, I’ve done a lot of pro bono economic development work. I’ve done work in Millinocket, Greenville, spent a lot of time in the Rangeley area working on trying to get Saddleback open again. I’d like to get back into that.”

Through the years, he said, he’s found it most gratifying to work with staff and volunteers who have been attracted the organization’s mission.

“Without them, all of this would have been just an interesting idea,” he said. “But the quality and the energy of dozens of staff and thousands of volunteers, over the years, has made this into something I think the whole state of Maine should be proud of.”

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